To be a foster youth or former foster youth is to experience and deal with trauma. Imagine being pulled away from everything you knew as a child. Going into foster care means living in a strange new home or facility, meeting strange new people, going to a new school, and having new hoops to jump through. It’s an extremely traumatizing event that just adds to the trauma already present due to the unhealthy family behaviors that led to being removed from your home. Trauma and mental illness seem to go hand in hand with foster care.
Further trauma can come from just experiencing foster care. Foster youth can experience traumatizing events on any given day such as the typical group home life, dealing with bullying from peers and teachers, unfair treatment from foster parents, or even negligence from caseworkers. Negligence from caseworkers can be a large issue for foster youth that are better behaved and could lead to them feeling as if no one cares about them.
In the state of Georgia, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) told me and other foster youth in my Independent Living Program (ILP) meetings that they make sure that caseworkers place a foster youth’s mental health as a “priority.” There are several things that the state does in order to support this initiative. One method is through medication, which usually creates more problems than it alleviates. The second is through therapy. The last method is through the mental health check-up that caseworkers are supposed to fulfill on a monthly basis. There are several problems with the execution of the monthly mental health check-up. The first is inexperienced and uncaring caseworkers who go months without actually fulfilling this responsibility. Another problem is the lack of extensive criteria for the mental health check-up. Technically, caseworkers only have to lay eyes on the child and visually confirm their well-being. My caseworker used to come to my school, wait in the lobby until she saw me walk by and mark that as my wellness check for the month. Some caseworkers will not even bother to talk to the youth to check on them or at least talk to the foster parents or group home employees about the child.
Another big problem that can affect current and former foster youth’s mental state is bullying from their peers. I got picked on several times by other kids because I was in foster care. They would say horrible things like “This is why your parents didn’t want you.” Teachers would even make sly comments to put me down. Once, when the class had to take forms home to have parents or guardians sign them, the teacher made a sly comment like “Everyone, take these home and have your parents sign them, except Michael, of course.” Sometimes people have this hate for foster youth and it’s not fair or okay because we have no control over what happens to us.
Not everything about being in care is bad though. Although a lot of it does wreak havoc on your psyche, there are spots of light. A source of light for me was GA EmpowerMEnt, a foster youth advocacy group composed of current and former foster youth. It helped me learn how to advocate for myself, how to represent myself, and how to build a support network. It’s important for foster youth to have people they can lean on and talk to because, unfortunately, not many do. I’ve personally learned that coping skills, forgiveness, mindfulness, and self-awareness are extremely vital to maintaining your mental health when you’re no longer in care. I spent a lot of time after foster care reflecting on everything that happened and figuring out what I was blaming myself for that I couldn’t have done anything about. I learned to lean heavily on my support network and tried very hard not to let other people’s actions affect me. But the truth is that I still struggle with that. After experiencing trauma, trusting others and asking for help is the key reason I have sound mental health, as foreign as that concept may be to a former foster youth.